There were so many things I found despicable about Boko Haram … well, except one thing. I am not quite sure if ‘admiration’ is the right word to use here, but how well-organized they were as a terrorist group was worthy of admiration. They were so organized and circumspect in every activity that it was almost impossible to find loopholes in their operations we could take advantage of to escape. There wasn’t a weak link in their midst. The camp was like a fortress and the General commanded so much respect, a revolt seemed utterly outrageous. He wasn’t like any other demagogue; he was a deity. His word was law and his actions – no matter how absurd – always went undisputed. He was god to the militants more than Allah. On days when there was less activity in the camp, you would see him resting under his palm shed. Under that conical canopy of palm fronds were two chairs and a mat – on which he often reposed. From this crude majestic throne, he exerted authority and could summon anybody at all at Sambisa to do his bidding.
‘I have never seen the General vulnerable to any situation. He is always in control’
Fatima told me once. Well neither had I, until it was my turn on the duty roster to clean his house. I spent a week and some days doing everything he asked me to. He didn’t speak much. The sharp contrast between who he was outside his house and his personality indoors was staggering. I came to the realization that he was human after all; and that was like a groundbreaking discovery for me.
He always drove me out of the room when he received a telephone call.
‘Nobody is allowed to remain in the HQ when I am on the phone’, he would say.
On the last day of my assignment to the General’s house, he received a call by his bedside while I was sitting on the floor dusting the numerous pairs of boots under the bed. He knew I was still there but strangely, he received the call anyway. Whoever was on the other end of the line seemed far more powerful than General Abubakar. After saying ‘hello’, the General froze and stared out the window as if he was having an out-of-body experience. Then he attempted to speak a few times, but the words came out incomplete. It was clear he was being cut-off by the caller with every attempt he made at speaking. Finally, as if given the go-ahead now, he started mentioning cities in the Northern parts of Nigeria and some figures:
‘In Kano, 20. Maiduguri, 12. Kaduna, 11….’. He choked for a while and then went on to say ‘No, we are not wasting your money Sir, we haven’t been too successful in our latest attacks because the government forces have been a thorn in our flesh’.
Sir? The General had a boss? The whole conversation began to make sense to me at that point. Those numbers he was mentioning were the death tolls from their recent attacks. I had already heard the numbers; I had heard them from the stories the militants told us when they arrived at the camp after each invasion. So I knew. Had the death tolls been lesser, I wouldn’t be any less devastated than I was already. Apparently, ‘Sir’ wasn’t too pleased by the small number of people losing their lives to Boko Haram invasions in the past weeks. He should have been there to see the militants gloat over their kills like some village boys retelling the story of their snail-catching expedition.
I wanted to know who ‘Sir’ was. I wanted to know the person whose voice made General Abubakar stroll back and forth in his own room with less confidence than even I would. I wanted to know who it was that was throwing money behind the terrorists. I really wanted to know. Was he the same person behind those trucks that marched into the camp at midnight almost every fortnight to deliver guns and all kinds of weaponry to the militants? All those sophisticated machines and cameras stashed away in boxes inside the General’s house, who bought them?
The revelation I had after eavesdropping on that telephone conversation left me more petrified. It was like a door had been opened right before me, revealing who the real enemy was, only that he was faceless. The deception of terrorism is that we often loath the puppets parading themselves on the internet and on the news without thinking who could possibly be the puppeteer. ‘Sir’ could be taking a stroll on a beach at Hawaii. He could be walking in the midst of the horde on the sidewalks of New York City or jogging with his dog down a sandy path in Saudi Arabia. Whoever he was or wherever he lived, we should all be scared because he is faceless. If ‘Sir’ was that nasal voice on the phone that could make even General Abubakar look like he needed to use the bathroom, then we should all be really scared. I just couldn’t come to terms with the fact that a worse-than-the-General walked freely somewhere on God’s green earth yet the General was in the news because he posted videos on YouTube proudly claiming responsibility for every Boko Haram invasion. They are fooling us all. What hope do you have in a war when you don’t know the real enemy? The guy who claims to be behind the evil acts of Boko Haram is actually a front. That is very scary!
Early the next morning after the telephone incident, the militants came into our tents to wake us up. They came wielding assault rifles as if preparing for a war or another invasion. We would have known if they were about to embark on another attack. Before they left the camp for any attack, they were always taken through a series of rituals. I couldn’t tell whether the rituals were for fortification or a preparation for death – seeing that their whole psyche was conditioned to accept death for a ‘holy’ cause. Then out comes the Babalawo from nowhere. None of us had ever laid eyes on him on any ordinary day in the camp. However, the day before every Boko Haram attack, he would appear and lead the jihadists through a series of rituals. The atmosphere was extremely charged by their chanting and dancing. Baba blew white powder over each of them while hopping and throwing himself about as if possessed. He had this eerie appearance. He was barely clothed by the animal skin he threw over his left shoulder. Anytime I saw him, I made funny mental pictures of his appearance, because I felt he was too small to be of any spiritual use. A beaded dark imp was what I often pictured in my head. His whole demeanor spelled evil. The beads on baba’s wrists and waist rattled abruptly with each step he took and that made it easy to notice his presence even while we were half-asleep. Sometimes at night we could hear him reciting incantations outside our tent.
So it was obvious the militants weren’t preparing for another invasion. I was amongst the 30 girls selected and forced to get dressed as quickly as possible. We were packed in the bed of one of the big trucks. The truck took off right after the General took his seat in the front. It was quite a nostalgic moment for me when we drove through the gates: I was reminded of how they brought us in. We were driven to a secluded part of the forest where the grass was ankle-height. The militants went about setting up cameras, hoisting their flags and posing with their guns in front of the camera. Within a few minutes we were all before the camera. The General gave a lengthy speech about selling some of us into slavery and how his aim was to establish a caliphate in the northern parts of Nigeria. Even the Boko haram militants were oblivious to the main reason why the General was making those claims in the video. But, I knew it. It was all just a ploy to remain relevant in world terrorism. He had to do something to salvage his fading image as a sadistic terrorist leader. He wanted to get into the good books of ‘Sir’ again. Pathetic!
Fatima crept into our tent that very night and slapped me on my back to wake me up. She whispered in my ears:
‘Isa, has agreed to help us escape. He will be here at 12 am. Stay awake. I’ll come for you’.
I kept my eyes open for the next 5 minutes. I needed to stay awake to mentally process what had just happened. First of all, I was the one who was always talking about escaping. So if there was ever a plan to escape, I had to be the one to initiate it. The Lord knows how much I had to fight to maintain my relationship with Fatima because of the number of times I spoke about escaping. She simply didn’t want to hear it.
‘It wasn’t worth it’, she often said. I couldn’t blame her though. She had been a witness to the execution of so many girls and even militants who attempted to escape. The terror of those scenes had crippled her. To her, the mesh fence surrounding the camp was rather imaginary but the terror and confinement she felt from within were shackles she couldn’t shake off. This same Fatima was the one initiating our escape. How she got to convince Isa to be of help, I couldn’t tell. Isa was the water tanker driver; he sometimes drove into the camp with a truckload of drums filled with water too. I knew Fatima had an amorous relationship with him to some extent. She told me how he often expressed disgust at the activities of Boko Haram. Isa was driving the water tanker purely for the money and not out of principle. He was vehemently opposed to terrorism – but he needed the money. So it wasn’t much of a surprise that he was the one assisting us in our escape. What would make a man want to put his life on the line for two captives? We didn’t deserve any of this. I feared for his life because even if we were successful with our escape, he would be going back to the camp every other week to deliver drums of water. They might trace our escape to him and he would be executed. He of all people should have known this. And if the reality of that didn’t deter him, then nothing else would.
I must have dozed off. Fatima with her baby strapped to her back came calling again. I didn’t pick anything. We stepped out of the tent and there they were crowded around the truck. They were offloading the drums. I pulled at Fatima’s dress and told her ‘let’s go back inside, they will see us’. Apparently, she had a plan. We stood frozen in front of our tent, all that while Fatima looked away from the militants standing around the truck and focused her attention on the two conversing in front of the empty drums arranged a few feet away from the truck. I wanted to go back in. We would have been severely punished for staying up that late not to talk of standing outside the tent. When Fatima whispered ‘let’s go’ I knew it was time to run because of the urgency in her voice. The two militants had walked away so we ran towards the empty drums. The rest of them were standing at the opened end at the back of the truck. Our only option was to climb up from the side. Fatima let me go first. She unstrapped her baby from her back, handed her to me and then she joined us a while after. The two of us squatted in the midst of the empty drums while the militants packed more into the bed of the truck.
The engine of the truck started. The drums were shaking and knocking against each other. There was nothing to hold onto. Nevertheless, we remained still till the truck left the camp. Then Fatima stood up and span the lid of one of the drums open. In a single leap I entered the drum, Fatima handed her sleeping baby to me first and then she climbed into the drum slowly.
‘Today is the happiest day of my life’
‘Ada, Me too oo’, Fatima responded.
She left the lid halfway open to let in some air. I thought of Mariama and the other girls and how I would miss them. But nothing could be compared to the sweet taste of freedom. We were crammed up in a drum, but we knew we were freer than we had ever been in the last few months.